Dreams of the Docent by Lee Clark Zumpe
American history lingers along forgotten ribbons of asphalt dismembering the vast countryside, on obsolete two-lane highways forsaken by all but the most intrepid explorers. Corridors once teeming with tourists and thriving with commerce sank into dreary decline following the introduction of the Interstate System, depriving whole townships of both revenue and purpose. Amidst the ruins of rundown neighborhoods, the remnants of boarded up roadside attractions and the hollowed-out shells of moribund communities, time languishes and lives fester.
The lure of the unknown drew me onto one such shadowy stretch, an antiquated artery meandering along the spine of peninsular Florida equidistant from the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. Far from the tourist conveyor belts of I-95 and I-75, down a winding tract of pavement skirted by dense oak hammocks draped with Spanish moss and carpeted by ferns, on a rural route paralleled by an equally idle set of railroad tracks, I took an unanticipated detour that offered pastoral produce stands, rustic flea markets, wayside antique barns, sprawling citrus groves and derelict alligator farms.
Ultimately, the diversion delivered me to the uninviting little town of Shady Haven. Late on a Saturday afternoon, I found myself miles from any reputable-looking service station with a dashboard full of flashing red lights and an engine that sounded like something monstrous had taken up residence beneath the hood.
“Not much I can do on the weekend.” Nate the middle-aged mechanic pressed his shoulder against the outside wall of the garage. He used a blue shop cloth first to clean his grease-stained hands, then to mop sweat from his forehead. A lifetime of filth had accumulated beneath his fingernails and his smile revealed a mouthful of crooked teeth stained from habitual indulgences with chewing tobacco. “Ain’t got the parts to fix it,” he said, though he had never actually identified the problem—not that I had the technical aptitude to approve of his diagnosis. “I’ll make some calls first thing Monday morning. Nobody’s open on Sunday ’round here.”
“There a motel in town?”
“Just one.” He looked over his shoulder, nodded on down the street where a number of dilapidated old office buildings congregated to form the downtown district. “Mose Lipscomb runs Sleep Tight Inn down on Main Street. I’m sure he’s got a vacancy.”
Reluctantly, I hauled my suitcase from the trunk and gathered a few things from the backseat before entrusting my vehicle’s security to Nate. Shambling over fractured slabs of sidewalk plagued by the unchecked propagation of weeds, I noticed a ramshackle billboard half-enveloped by kudzu in a vacant lot. Roasting in the scorching heat of the central Florida sun, I paused long enough to decipher the advertisement’s original message, long-since obscured by both vegetation and the elements:
Mose’s Haunted House of Hideous Horrors
See: Poe’s Walking Stick!
See: Locks of Lizzy Borden’s Hair!
See: Signed Salem Witch Confessions!
See: Voodoo Artifacts from Southern Plantations!
See: A Crucifix used in a Failed Exorcism!
Though the likelihood that the museum still existed seemed slim, I took consolation in the fact that the motel proprietor might be willing to share some interesting stories and artifacts.
“I sure could use a room for a couple of nights,” I spoke loudly, not certain whether the man behind the counter was dead or dozing. After several instants, his eyelids lifted and his eyes rolled anxiously as if he had been shaken from some portentous dream. “Do you have any rooms available?”
“Yeah, how did you know?”
“Mister, nobody stops in Shady Haven intentionally.” Mose pushed the guest register across the counter as if submitting evidence to support his assertion. Taking the pen he offered, I scanned the signatures and accompanying dates. The most recent guest had passed through six months earlier; before that, years had gone by without lodgers. “See what I mean?”
As I etched my name across the page, Mose stood and stretched. Just shy of being extraordinarily tall, the innkeeper scratched at his shabby yellow beard while his drowsy, vacuous eyes scanned a collection of keys dangling from tiny hooks on the wall behind the counter. After much deliberation, he plucked one from its place and handed it to me. A tiny chain connected it to a crystal tetragonal trapezohedron. Upon one of its eight faces, the number 8 had been inscribed.
“You can have the best room in the place. Does $20 a night sound reasonable?”
“That’s fine,” I said, digging for my wallet.
“Don’t worry about it now. We’ll settle up when you check out.” Mose eased himself back into the chair, resting both arms on the desk. His eyelids sagged and his lower lip, shimmering with spittle, drooped and quivered as he panted from the brief exertion.
“Is there a restaurant you could recommend?”
“There’s a restaurant, but I wouldn’t let my dog eat the pigswill they serve.” Mose glanced at a clock on the wall. “Come back down to the lobby in an hour. I’ll see what I can come up with.”
“I don’t want you to go to any trouble.”
“No trouble at all. Be nice to have some conversation with a meal for once.”
The Deep South—and particularly Florida—had coined the term “sleepy little town.” From the dingy window in my tiny room on the second floor, I could see the entire town of Shady Haven, from the hodgepodge of strewn auto parts torn like tumors from declining vehicles and discarded on the land surrounding Nate’s garage to the swarthy steeple towering over the local church and its accompanying burial ground. In between the two landmarks, the town boasted a small medical center, an old-fashioned five-and-dime store, a hardware store, a few dozen aging houses in various states of disrepair and a rustic eatery called Buford’s Smoke House.
For an hour, I stared out that foggy glass waiting for the inadequate window-shaker to cool off the room a few degrees, watched as trucks hauling citrus or lumber raced through the town without tapping the brakes. Not once did I notice a pedestrian strolling along the avenue, a child playing in a yard or even a raggedy mutt looking for trouble. Nate had disappeared, his bay doors closed, my ailing car left sitting in the precise spot where I had parked it.
The room resonated with the town’s former claim to fame. Leftovers from Mose’s Haunted House of Hideous Horrors included classic monster movie posters, a stack of old genre pulps on the nightstand and a coffin-shaped coffee table. Rampant cobwebs, bathroom mildew that mimicked bloodstains and a warped mirror above the sink unintentionally added to the ambiance.
Back in the lobby, I found Mose waiting with a platter full of sandwiches and canned sodas. The old man had shaken his fatigue and seemed interested in talking about the town’s former glory.
“Yeah,” he said with a trace of sadness. “It was great fun while it lasted. Lots of visitors, kids and adults alike. We always had a good time. No better way to make a living than scaring people.”
“What happened?” The question seemed obligatory, though I could already guess the fate of the museum.
“Tourists stopped coming through here. Shut down after a few years. Practically a ghost town now, just a few stragglers too stubborn or too impoverished to give up everything they’ve always known.”
“Why’d you stay?”
“Nowhere else to go. My place is here, with the relics. Just because no one comes to see them anymore doesn’t mean that they’ve lost their relevance.”
“So, you’ve kept everything?”
“Sure—the collection is scattered through the motel rooms, bits and pieces, here and there. In fact, you’ll be sleeping on Lovecraft’s pillow tonight.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“Well, that’s not quite truthful, I reckon,” he said, chasing the confession with a swig of Nehi Peach. “Long time ago, legend has it, Mr. Lovecraft visited friends or relatives right here in Shady Haven. He slept so poorly that night—plagued with nightmarish visions—that come morning, he shredded his pillowcase in a fit of madness. Peculiar thing what he found inside it.” Mose paused, guzzled another mouthful of soda and nibbled at a sandwich quarter. An accomplished storyteller, he knew exactly how to milk the moment, to perch his audience on a precipice and make them sweat for resolution. “Seems there was a tangle of feathers, dead center of the pillow I s’pose, what were all black and bloody. Now, men like the two of us know there’s a rational explanation behind it—but townsfolk saw it as something altogether different.”
“I don’t blame them for turning to old superstitions to explain it.”
“Course not, and I’m sure poor old Mr. Lovecraft forgave them for running him out of town,” Moses said. The sound of a passing truck interrupted his thoughts momentarily. He stood, shuffled over to the window and peeled down one slat of the yellowed metal Venetian blinds. “Getting dark out there,” he muttered, weariness sneaking back into his voice. “Best call it a night.”
“Wait,” I said, wanting to hear the rest of the story. “What happened? Why did they chase him out of town?”
“Oh,” the old man said, stroking his whiskers. “Because, they blamed him. They said his nightmares were so powerful they tainted the pillow, the bed…maybe the whole damn town.” The smile that fractured his expression when he revealed the tale’s climax left a stronger impression than the story itself. I tried to dismiss the whole yarn as an old man’s last grasp at his glory days, one last shot at spooking a customer. Such luxury would not be mine, though: he saw to that disappointment with the fanatical proclivity simmering in his eyes, the lingering titillation at the macabre recitation as he showed me to the door. “I bought them all, you see, those black, bloody feathers. Thought it was good business. Scattered them all through the motel, one per pillow, one pillow per room.”
“It’s a good story,” I said, trying to mask my embryonic apprehension. I thanked him for both the dinner and the discourse. “I’ll do my best to get a good night’s sleep.”
“Yes sir,” Mose said. “Pleasant dreams, sir.”
Admittedly, my acquaintance with the weird fiction of American author H.P. Lovecraft was limited to tales I had perused in various horror anthologies over the years. Since the current high regard afforded Lovecraft by modern scholars had not yet fully blossomed during my college years, I found him on none of my reading lists for English literature courses, including one which examined the influence of Poe on 20th-century writers. As Mose’s narration permeated the gray matter, my memory dredged up snippets from a short biographical sketch from some nameless collection and I recalled that the Providence, Rhode Island native had, in fact, made several sojourns to the Sunshine State during his short lifetime.
Still, the Lovecraft account seemed senselessly far-fetched. The “fit of madness” seemed a particularly aberrant reaction for an urbane, cultured writer; the inference of some connection to voodoo ritual played like the subtext of an acutely lurid Southern Gothic novel.
Despite my skepticism, I thoroughly examined the pillow—as well as the bedding—before switching off the lamp on the nightstand and plunging the motel room into abject darkness for the night.
If I am thankful for one thing that happened in the hours that followed it is that my extreme fatigue precluded me from committing every detail of my dreams to memory. The visions I suffered that intolerably long night originated from terrifying realms of unconscious imagery. An endless cavalcade of graphic atrocities paraded through my mind’s eye delivering horrors that have no parallel outside of Dante’s Inferno.
In the morning, I was left with vivid snapshots of my gruesome phantasmagoria: smoldering cities, toppled towers and thoroughfares lately blackened by emerald waves of flame; disfigured and charred corpses putrefying in the streets, cruelly unheeded by stunned survivors; a blanket of viridescent ashes loosed by churning, sallow xanthic skies; endless dark devastation occupied by desperate and despondent refugees seeking shelter from the omnipresent, unearthly conquerors and their horde of warriors—unspeakable, mute green monstrosities with tentacle-like appendages and dozens of bulbous eyes and greedy, jagged teeth.
It was an apocalyptic vision of some alien world set within the ultimate void of the black planets in an ancient corner of the cosmos—yet it was hauntingly familiar.
In the final instants before I awoke from my unquiet slumbers, I faced the author of this staggering holocaust. It dwelled in an aerie of writhing shadows surrounded by dead civilizations and pallid, spent stars. A graveyard of doomed worlds clustered in folds of darkness, their hooded priests long silenced and their consecrated shrines abandoned. Worship and sacrifice stirred no clemency in the barely sentient, blind and mindless Daemon Sultan at the very heart of Ultimate Chaos.
Its hideous profile exposed its terrible, overwhelming apathy.
I lingered for some time on the shore of dreams, teetering on the precipice of sleep as if eager to steal one last glimpse at the fading horrors. When I finally pushed myself out of bed, I was surprised to find half the morning had slipped away silently.
Time moves with unceasing tread—but in Shady Haven, it does so with a pronounced limp.
The television in the room boasted a basic cable setup but seemed only capable of receiving six or seven local stations, half of which featured evangelical programming. After a quick shower, I thumbed through a couple of the pulp magazines Mose had placed in the room to generate atmosphere. The March 1949 issue of Weird Tales featured novelettes by Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Bloch and August Derleth, short stories by Stanton Coblentz and Thorp McClusky and cover art by Matt Fox. A 1945 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories included the novella “Sword of Tomorrow” by Henry Kuttner.
Though well-written and engaging, the stories fell short of capturing my attention. With little else to do besides sleep—an eventuality that held both dread and morbid curiosity for me—I slipped on my shoes and went for a walk along the town’s main street.
Along narrow avenues lined with sprawling live oak sat modest bungalows with small-paned windows and vacant porches. I hiked up to the town’s lone church—curiously untenanted on a Sunday afternoon—which squatted on a central summit overlooking a neglected citrus grove. Its obligatory burying-ground reeked of antiquity with its gnarled old oak and black, unembellished gravestones. From its highest crest, Shady Haven looked deserted and forsaken, the ghost of a forgotten community.
Making my way back to Sleep Tight Inn, a solemn procession of townsfolk encountered me unexpectedly, startling me and forcing me to stagger off the sidewalk onto someone’s lawn, cluttered with willow trees and odd, gray standing stones scarred by curious glyphs. The scowling residents neither greeted me nor acknowledged my existence as they passed hurriedly, each adorned in decidedly dark attire and clutching some form of archaic hymnal. As the final member of the uncanny throng marched down the avenue, my eye sought his down-turned face.
His ominous countenance revealed an unsettling, alien omnipotence sustained by appalling apathy.
“Sure, I’ve seen it,” Mose said, offering me a warm cup of Earl Grey tea. Clouds had overrun the sky during my afternoon walk heralding an unseasonable drop in temperature. Shady Haven had been besieged by an aberrant burst of Arctic air. “‘The thing that crouches in shadow,’ they call it. Or ‘The thing that haunts the darkness.’”
“You mean everyone in town has the same dream?” I spoke hesitantly, not certain whether my reluctance sprang from disbelief or fear. I questioned the sanity of my host—and in doing so, found myself forced to examine my own mental stability. “How can everyone dream the same dream?”
“Not everyone,” he said. “Maybe one in four.”
“So one out of four people living in Shady Haven share the same dream every night?”
“That’s just it, though,” Mose explained, showing the first signs of impatience. “It’s not our dream. It’s that thing’s dream. It’s as if those visions are being transmitted from some place outside space and time, rerun over and over again in our heads.”
“So all that nonsense about Lovecraft was just gibberish you use to spook the tourists?” I could not help but feel somehow violated, though I did not believe Mose intended any harm. “The voodoo feathers, too?”
“Well, the voodoo feathers I made up,” Mose said, smiling at some unuttered yarn. “But Lovecraft did visit Shady Haven. That’s when all this started. Fact is, townsfolk blame him for it. Think he fiddled with the dial on the cosmic radio, so to speak—opened the channel and initiated the transmission.”
“But what about,” I mumbled, but I stopped myself short of finishing the question. The churchgoers fit into the equation in some manner that defied logic. The phenomenon itself challenged common sense. “I saw a group of people heading to the church on the hill.”
“Best not ask questions about those folk,” Mose said, his mood souring once more. “Some don’t understand it like I told it to you. Some think that its two-way radio, that they can talk back to that thing. Don’t know why anyone would care to attract his attention, myself. Seems like a bad idea all around.”
I put off sleep as long as I could, but eventually succumbed to exhaustion—and to curiosity.
The dreams returned, more vivid than the previous night. I found myself assailed by sickening and indescribable reflections of horror. The disorienting, nightmarish landscape punctuated by forgotten and neglected graves spread beneath grim alien skies. The ghastly mountains of tangled, mutilated bodies had worn away into mounds of glistening bones. The emerald waves of flame had been extinguished, though the viridescent ashes still drifted amidst the rubble.
Refugees found themselves subjugated by the pitiless mute monstrosities who crowned themselves priest-kings and demanded endless sacrifices in rituals of unutterable depravity.
As the dream continued, I found myself standing at the black doorway far beneath the swarthy steeple of the nearby church, gazing out across the town of Shady Haven, watching as a blight spread inexorably across the landscape. Doom seemed to radiate from the small central Florida town, enveloping the unsuspecting Earth in a fulvous yellow shroud as flashes of emerald flames ignited from beyond space and time.
I saw the architect of this inevitable cataclysm for only a single instant: his three-lobed burning eye displaced the Earth’s moon as its cities crumbled and condemned denizens articulated a single plea for amnesty which went unacknowledged.
I stirred from my fitful sleep some time after noon on Monday. I spoke not another word of my dreams to Mose as I settled my bill and set out to find Nate the mechanic to determine the status of the repairs on my car.
“Don’t let it gnaw at you,” Mose said as I turned to go. “Awake, you see the pretense of reality. Asleep, you see all the horrors evolution has taught us to dismiss.”
Much to my delight, Nate had managed to get the car running.
“It’ll get you up to Jacksonville,” he said. “I’d stop by the dealer and have them run one of them fancy diagnostics on it before you go further, though.”
“I’ll do that,” I said, presenting a credit card.
An hour later, I sat in the driver’s seat of my car just outside Shady Haven. I had pulled off onto the shoulder of the road for one last look. Intermittent traffic sped by on that antiquated artery tracing the arching spine of Florida.
Some people see the world differently. Whether their vision is a gift or a curse is debatable. Either way, their dreams can be so powerful that they become imprinted upon their surroundings and their possessions.
I told myself that the dreams would not follow me home from Shady Haven. Dreams are dreams, nothing more. No matter how many times I repeated that mantra, I did not believe it.
Two hours later, I reached the outskirts of Jacksonville. As I approached, a broken, splintered moon lighted up a ghastly scene, and the aspect of an alien sky with its swirling, anomalous constellations, pulsating comets and fiery falling meteors offered stark contrast to a landscape littered with festering corpses and ruins.
I rubbed my eyes and the façade of reality mercifully reemerged from the shadows.